MAN ABOUT TOWN: Why Are School Plans Secret?

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 4, 2010

Quite a little brouhaha in the Little City last week over my conjecture that officials were looking to build a new school in Hillwood Square. I led with the most shocking assumption – that the nearly new Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School would logically then be torn down. That got everyone’s attention, as well as a denial by School Board Chairman Joan Wodiska, who issued a statement that I had ”incorrectly suggested that City officials were discussing tearing down Mary Ellen Henderson.”

So now we know what they’re NOT going to do – but why no statement on what they ARE planning?


— The City Council, School Board, and Planning Commission have met several times in closed session to discuss purchase of the Hillwood Square property.

— Obviously, if the City bought the property it would build a school on it.

— There are four City schools. Are they planning a fifth? I don’t think so – it’s already strange enough to split the elementary years between two schools. So it seems almost certain that if the City builds a new school, it will sell some existing property.

— Which school would be sold? Well, which school building can the City afford to sell? Mt. Daniel and Thomas Jefferson both are in residential areas. The properties are desirable, but would hardly generate windfall profits.

— So, forgive me for having assumed that, rather than selling Mt. Daniel or TJ, the City would sell the fabulously desirable land adjoining the West Falls Church Metro – which former Councilman Dan Maller has suggested might bring enough money to cover the whole cost of a new school.

When Walt Disney decided to build a new theme park in Florida, he formed a number of “front” companies to buy up land in order to conceal the purpose and keep down the price. Nobody knew the swampland was being acquired to build Disney World, and that worked to Disney’s extreme advantage.

But what our City officials don’t seem to realize is that they’re not a private corporation. Their decisions are funded by taxpayers, who have a right not only to know what they’re deliberating, but to provide input.

The City’s excuse for holding closed meetings on the subject is, to cite Virginia Code, that “discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy.”

OK – I can understand that some portions of the discussion should be private, but certainly not everything. What we have right now is a major decision, with major consequences, under consideration with zero knowledge of — or input from — the public. That’s not right. That’s why we have sunshine laws: the public has a right to know.

I can’t believe that the City would be negotiating to buy a parcel of land for which it has no definite plans. Therefore, plans must have been developed for how the land would be used. Yet the voters and taxpayers don’t have a clue.

Are our elected and appointed officials misusing their authority to keep information secret? Bargaining decisions on what price to offer for a property are legitimately protected from public knowledge. But overall plans to replace a school are not.

Among the 21 elected and appointed officials involved in these closed sessions, the person I’d most expect to challenge the conventional authority would be Planning Commission Chairman John Lawrence. He has considerable experience on the Board, and has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to speak out.

Lawrence heads a non-profit that assists countries to conduct democratic elections. So he’s acutely aware of governmental best practices.

How about it, Mr. Lawrence? Right here at home, is the spirit and letter of the Sunshine law being observed? If it’s not, we’re counting on you and a few of the newly elected officials who ran on a “no more business as usual” platform to speak out.

Because before they change up our schools, we have a right to know and to say what we think about it.

October 4, 2010 


10 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Why Are School Plans Secret?”

  1. Jan B Hertzsch on October 4th, 2010 6:45 am

    Personally, I can see why they keep deliberations in secret. Look at the snowstorm created by your supposition on what they were discussing. My view of the process is that we pay them (sort of) to do due diligence and make decisions. Then explain the rationale behind the decisions and get public comment at that time.

    The alternative would be to hold meetings in the high school gym and hire referees because the entire city would argue every suggestion. What chaos.


  2. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 4th, 2010 8:31 am

    I assume that at this stage the City officials are sorting out the options for selling/purchasing property. Keeping those meetings closed door helps various potential buyers and sellers from knowing the details of what the City is considering – which is important for negotiations.

    I’m pretty confident that before anything permanent is done there will be public visibility into the plans. It seems unlikely that one of these closed door sessions will end with an announcement that the City has purchased Hillwood Square, sold GMHS, and finalized plans for a new high school.

    As George mentions, apparently there are 21 City officials in these meetings. I’m quite sure that if anything questionable is proposed we’ll all hear about it long before specific action is taken. It’s not like this is 3 people sitting around coming up with some master plan.

  3. Ron Peppe (Falls Church City) on October 4th, 2010 9:25 am

    Regardless of what was or was not discussed in closed session, the process of facility planning for schools has been pretty open, even by Falls Church standards. I wanted to make sure everyone knew where to look for the plans being developed — they are online and everyone can certainly still weigh in.

    I am sure there were prior iterations of this work before my time, but a committee that included city and school staff and many citizens started working two years ago with some design professionals and demographers to come up with a long range facilities plan. The idea was to make sure that the limited resources available were being used consistent with long term goals, rather than just reacting to the crisis du jour.

    There are some of the fundamental questions still to be answered. If you want to see the details, go to the school system website and click on “FCCPS School Facilities Study” on the homepage.” The study lays out potential costs of various options, and reviews the adequacy and lifespan of all of the current facilities.

    To some extent this will always be a rolling target, and timing depends on resources. The enrollment projections are also always being refined and updated, but the information in the draft facilities plan at least provides some facts and a basis for debate and discussion. Like anything in Falls Church, I am sure there will be debate over even basic facts and assumptions in the reports, but it is a good place to start.

    I do understand that there is always a tension between what is public and what needs to be discussed in private. Closed discussions should be rare, but they are needed from time to time. I know there is often disagreement and there are good arguments on both sides.

    One of the positive things I have witnessed in Falls Church is that during closed meetings, the group does a pretty good job of policing itself to make sure the discussions are narrow and only on the closed meeting topic.

    As others have noted, just because something can be discussed in closed session does not mean that it should be, but I think most of the folks involved around here only do it when overall there is a collective decision that it is both legal and in the bests interests of the city.


  4. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on October 4th, 2010 10:35 am

    George: First of all, I don’t head the International Foundation for Electoral. I’m just in charge of Congressional Affairs, but thanks for the promotion. Second, if you expect me to yell and scream about the closed session the other week being improper, you’re out of luck. I would have no hesitation to say otherwise, trust me. I think my record speaks for itself. If I believe something, I’ll say it.

    What we discussed should have been in closed session and I applaud everyone who attended because it came up on very short notice. Personally, I have no qualms about meeting the letter AND spirit of the Sunshine requirements for that meeting or for other closed sessions of which the PC has been part. Frankly, I questioned having “Hillwood Square” on the public agenda. I didn’t think that was appropriate for a closed session.

    As for “sunshine” in the City, you need to remember that for any land acquisition or sale, there’s a very public process. You’ll have public CC work sessions (likely a joint session as well) and then a public CC hearing (at least one) and then the recommendation goes to the PC for review. The PC is certainly known for a robust public review process. You’ve got to admit that. In my four years on the Commission, we’ve only had one closed session of our own and that was to hear from the City Attorney about a legal case. So you have a PC work session (possibly), two public hearings, a PC vote, then it goes back to the CC for another public hearing and a vote. There is — and will be — sunshine galore.

  5. Steven Valley on October 4th, 2010 1:10 pm

    You know this “L’il City” is rife with the mistakes of the inept when it comes to the public purchase and sale of property throughout its history. The First Virginia Bank Buildings on the west end of the city and the sale of the school and land that became Sunrise Senior Living are two that come to mind. Both of these, when viewed in hindsight, were colossal mistakes whose outcomes have left huge and lasting impressions on the way we operate.

    Falls Church is known for it’s school system and it’s small size, so I think George is right to point this stuff out and bring it to light.

    Keep going George, someone has to ask tough questions and I am glad they’re being asked.

  6. Karen Hoofnagle Falls Church City on October 4th, 2010 6:06 pm

    Prudent land use does not always mean selling off what you’re not currently using. Buildings can be repurposed as senior centers or any number of other things while we preserve our much needed field space. One example of larger jurisdictions doing this is the building at the corner of Graham Road and Lee Highway in Fairfax County. It has been a senior center for ages and now is becoming a school again.

    Hard to say what we’d do with an extra school or which school would be “extra” but I wouldn’t consider it an obvious move to sell a school not in active use.

  7. Steven Valley on October 4th, 2010 8:28 pm

    Karen, it’s funny that you’re using that as an example since we (the city of Falls Church) did the exact opposite of what you’re suggesting took place in Fairfax with the building on the corner of Graham and Lee.

    The Sunrise Senior Center on 29 in Falls Church was the previous site of another school here in the city. The city (back in the early 90’s or late 80’s) decided they didn’t need another school anymore and that we would be fine with the 3 schools we had. So they sold the property taking a short term gain and sealing our fate on school space. Think of how much better shape we’d be in right now if we had that land and that building?

    I am not sure if there was any discourse with the public on that issue ( I am sure there was) with that said however the city has a bad track record with type of thing and quite frankly we should have more discussion about this issue before we make another “decision” like the one with Sunrise.

    For a city that is land locked and has no ability to grow pst it’s present boundaries (wasn’t it Mark Twain who said “buy land, they aren’t making any more of it”?) how we use the land that is currently available to us becomes all the more critical and a matter of the “L’il City’s” life or death… and that’s not hyperbole.

    Also, the 1st Virginia Buildings are on the East end of town, I just noticed that mistake… sorry ?

  8. Michael Irvine on October 4th, 2010 10:15 pm

    The way I see it, the City would be losing quite a bit by opening up the discussions on the Hillwood Square acquisition in return for gaining very little. Ok, so as responsible citizens and curious people, we want to know what our government is up to. That’s understandable. But we have to look at the facts of the matter.

    George points out correctly that Falls Church is a city, not a business. Still, it has an obligation to its shareholders (taxpayers) to deliver to them the best return on investment possible. The City must spend its tax money wisely. And opening up these discussions to the public would ultimately most likely just have the effect of driving up the price we pay for Hillwood Square.

    Think about it. I don’t know what’s going on in those meetings specifically, but I think we can assume certain officials are making cases for trying to purchase Hillwood Square on various different grounds. If the discussions were open, these officials couldn’t, hypothetically, point to how much we would likely make off of selling the GMHS property vs. how much we would spend on Hillwood Square, because then that could hurt our bargaining position and make the Hillwood Square people try and drive the price of their property up. Or other developers could look at what we’re offering and offer one they know we can’t match.

    If we want to truly be fiscally responsible in this whole affair, closed meetings are the only way to go. Even if our curiousity has to go unsatisfied. We choose our elected officials because we trust them to make the right decisions for our city. Let’s let them do their jobs.

  9. Steven Valley on October 5th, 2010 6:23 am

    Michael I hate to disagree with you, some of the folks on the board are the same ones who got “surprised” by the city’s deficit, while that was going on they decided it was “high time we re-brand the city”, and then argue that we still need the George Buses?

    Our elected officials are ostensibly part time politicians, they all have full time jobs and get paid a small stipend to provide governance. As much as we may hate them, there is a reason why you have full time professional politicians. The track record for the city and it’s “decisions” isn’t exactly stellar, the fact that we have no professional politicians involved, and that the water is getting ostensibly close to the gunnels of this little love boat we call Falls Church City, well it should give everyone a moment of pause.

    With all of that in mind? We can ill afford to get this wrong. So sure, keep the doors closed, don’t ask the tough questions, and then later on be surprised when this one “decision” precipitates a collapse.

    BTW? If (and this is a big IF) the city is considering doing this, selling the two schools and I assume the football field. Why is it so suddenly important to do this and scrape the present buildings and system we currently have? What pressing need is there to alter course and consider this whole new concept? If it’s just so we can buy the Hillwood Square land and build a new Jr High and High School, doesn’t that seem like a pretty extreme shell game to be playing at this moment in the city’s life?

    One more thing, I hate to say it, but by having this article in the paper and having folks discuss it… it’s already out in the open and the owners of Hillwood know it too so there is little point to keep the doors closed now. Provided of course that the city is actually considering this.

  10. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 5th, 2010 9:33 am

    I want to clarify the branding initiative. That effort was undertaken by the EDA, not the City, using EDA funds (before I was on the EDA). People often point to the branding effort as a misguided use of funds at a time when the City’s budget was in trouble – but they’re really unrelated. One might argue that the EDA should have spent the money on something else – but that’s a different argument.

    As for the reasons the Hillwood Square option is being considered now, with some urgency – one reason might be that developers could be close to purchasing Hillwood Square. If that happens then this option is off the table (I assume) and there don’t seem to be many other options. At some point we’ll need to rebuild the high school (the current one is getting old). There are options for doing that on the land the City currently owns – but if we could get a lot of money for that land and put a new school somewhere else then that sounds like something we should really consider.

    We also have the somewhat pressing issue of running out of space at TJ within the next couple of years. Since adding school space usually takes quite a while (unless you’re dropping in trailers) it seems like getting a jump start makes sense. I’m not sure how the TJ issue fits into the Hillwood Square plan but I suspect they’re somehow connected.

    Even though we’re all talking about this out in the open I can still see the need for closed sessions to try and work out some details.

    Finally, while I can appreciate the concern people have over past mistakes by the City (if only we hadn’t sold previous land, etc.), shouldn’t we also consider potential mistakes we could make by not doing something? What if we don’t pursue Hillwood Square and 10 years from now we’re all sitting around banging our heads because we didn’t go after the last piece of potential school property around?

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